A preface: I first addressed this to a man, and now I write to a machine. Behind the machine is a wo/man, or wo/men, human people. Somebody supplied an integer, furrowed an alley, steered the craft down a given route. But after that, the open sea: the random principle, waves of mazy data, fractal tongues washing froth. The semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure seemed so sure that the signifier and the signified—the word and its work, in so many words—are just two things adrift, latched together by a net that is not fixed, linguistic, determined. It all depends, said the semiotician, on the work the words are put to. A net/work. In this regard, it seems appropriate (for this text has been sifted so fine, and so many times) to cast out the net beyond the vagaries of subjectivity and culture, ultimately arbitrary, full of meaningless sounds. And when the machine returns the garbled form—Dada architectures, open claims, hanging signifiers—who’s to say this is not also correct somehow, perhaps even corrective; as though there could ever be a definitive version (in translation or otherwise)! Ludwig Wittgenstein thought of theology as grammar, and grammar as a meaning-production system within “shared human behavior.” The difference between the wo/man and the machine is that the latter needs no theology since it works with the dogged logic of any god or greater force; without any will or agenda, the machine has nothing to lose or gain. This is the principle of chaos, analogous as far as anyone really knows to the “will” of God: terrifyingly meaningless, mainly banal, occasionally poetic. At the accidental stroke of a tongue (divine eloquence, the void speaking back), we (the living) are struck [as though] dumb.
—JD, Berlin, 2018
You and I grew up speaking different languages. We may never meet, yet here you hold my words in your hands, beneath your fingers, mouse and keyboard. I hand them all to you in perfect trust, for I have no choice. The words between us are like the map of a city with which we both are familiar and in which we both walk as foreigners. Translator, if I revert to the slang of my hometown, will you meet me in the square there as a child? The language in which I write runs across the page left to right; the language in which you write is its mirror, right to left. If you glance into the mirror, do you see yourself? Or is this perhaps an imposition, the way that bodies eclipse each other in the street, on the news, in the eye of a gun, down the barrel of a viewfinder?
“The silent Other of gesture and failed speech,” writes Homi K. Bhabha, “becomes what Freud calls […] the Stranger, whose languageless presence evokes an archaic anxiety and aggressivity by impeding the search for narcissistic love-objects in which the subject can rediscover himself, and upon which the group’s amour propre is based.”
In truth, Translator, I don’t know what that means. Yet the Stranger stands between us, neither here (where I am) nor there (where you are). As you write, the you becomes an I, and vice versa. We may find ourselves standing on opposite sides of the glass, of the wall.
Translator, I have written nothing in two years. This was in fulfillment of a vow I made in public that from then on there were to be no more contributions to “the discourse.” I retired my body and my speech from what I privately refer to as the traveling discourse-value-creation circus, in protest of its tendency and prerogative to reduce us all to symbols of ourselves and of the other for whom one’s own body is supposed to stand in, since this other is not, one assumes, here in the room. When Pablo Picasso and the Fauves gang broke from the shackles of the recently denaturalized European real (what an ecstasy of critique, what a pornography of possibility!), their works, like ghosts, took their forms from the trophies of colonialism, whose makers were long since displaced, or worse. Perhaps something of the aura of death remained in the objects, which Picasso and friends seem to have [mis]understood as the essence of life itself. Perhaps death was then already beginning to become obscure, taboo, unbearable. Translator, it seems to me that the whole of Western modernity has been an attempt to banish death, but since this project has failed, death has been relegated to the place of unquantifiable things, where it remains and reigns supreme. The unbearable is not that which cannot be borne, since there are plenty of people who have had to bear it full in the face and in broad daylight before their own children. The unbearable is that of which one cannot speak.
As you and I both know, there is no such thing as translation; a text must be rebuilt from the ground up. What I said, or meant to say, eroded by your own will and words. This is how it must and ought to be. In between there is something unspeakable, or unspoken.
Translator, I wonder about the seventh proposition presented in the conclusion of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, one of many scholarly works I have never tried to read. “Whereof one cannot speak,” wrote Wittgenstein, “one must remain silent.” I wonder about the imperative clause in Wittgenstein’s seventh proposition. He began his Tractatus while fighting in the trenches during World War I; he finished it while stationed in Cassino, Italy, as a prisoner of war, where he became suicidal. Upon his release, Wittgenstein set about divesting himself of his family money, one of many instances throughout history in which someone has attempted to give up their privilege. I wonder about Wittgenstein’s trauma response. About the feeling that snaps itself shut inside the body and the cautery catching on the valve, no words worming their way or buzzing like flies on a corpus. Whereof one cannot speak: silent. Playing dead in a box in the brain.
To theorize is a bad habit, an avoidant habit; a way of staving off the inevitable. And Translator, I, too, am afraid of death. But the true horror and glory of it is that there is no plan and no story, nobody more or less deserving; arbitrary lottery assigning the whereabouts of a soul in the world, arbitrary one’s chances of survival, arbitrary that one outlives their mother and brother in the bombing of a city at war and another dead in their crib in the anxious peacetime of an imperial nation-state, despite the baby monitor and organic bamboo sleepsuit, the stencils of elephants and dinosaurs, the money, the plans for any kind of future. Arbitrary which of our beloved machines will suddenly fail in the sky, on the road, coming apart in fragments as graceful as a flower bursting into bloom, scattering its bodies out across time and space like confetti. Life is equally cheap and dear everywhere, and nothing less than massive-scale military-industrial propaganda operations in the imperial hope factories of Hollywood could ever hope to obscure it. Anyway, most science is to some extent fictional and most fiction to some extent scientific in this brutal propensity for narrative, the prerogative of the species to tell stories.
Writing, in my experience, is equated to a stacking up of claims, like a budget report. According to convention, these claims should be grounded in a certain linear history—similar claims made by others in the past, or observations grounded in vernacular experience, quantifiable according to one’s subject parameters. At the end of it the conclusion is slapped down hard with a resounding thud of punctuation, like a grand total at the foot of the bill. According to the ministrations of those in the history business—whose observations are grounded in mud and rubble and the dust of bones—the history of writing is a history of invoicing, and the earliest written documents are all records of goods and services owed or delivered. The English word invoice sounds as though it is derived from vox (Latin), or vois (French); a sound produced in the body, a form of agency by which one’s presence is expressed and understood—as though to speak is to signify. And history, after all, is in part a story of who speaks and who signifies; which is to say it is a story of who does not speak and who does not signify. No modernity without its other, a long shadow cast by the rectilinear stack of bones. But invoice is in fact derived from the French envoyer, from the Latin inviāre, derived from via: path, road. The only way out is through. The Arabic word فاتورة is derived from a word meaning “that which has been made”: an object or an action. Carved in stone; thud of a tablet set down like a promise. When all is said and done. If it has been said, it may as well be done. The debt is a promise; the story is a currency. We can only hope that this may become an exchange.
Translator, in the spirit of debts and exchanges, I would like to ask you to collude with me. Inevitably, you have already done so; no one writes alone in a foreign tongue, and by now there are two of us here, each with their own idea of where this is going. Let’s say that somewhere in this text you have placed a few words of your own. Hiding in plain sight, nobody will ever know. Translator, what I wanted to tell you has become obscure. Since we’ve never met, why should I presume? But I think I wanted to tell you—very urgently—that the story is slippery, that nothing is written in stone. Though you already know that, better than anyone.
Wishing you a debt to the future, and here’s to both (to all) our tongues.
A version of this text was published in Arabic on the occasion of Sharjah Biennial 13.